2021 will mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the great composer Josquin Desprez. Like that of Palestrina, his name is one of the few that is constantly mentioned in various books and treatises on music. The Franco-Flemish composer Josquin Desprez is a figure of great importance in Western Renaissance music. His contemporaries considered him to be the greatest composer of his time. He composed instrumental and vocal pieces, both sacred and secular, on texts in Latin and local languages. According to a famous phrase by Martin Luther, the musician was ‘the master of the notes who had to do as he wants’, while ‘the other masters have to do as the notes want’.
The composer’s name is also the name of the Leipzig Chamber Choir, which is one of the city’s leading choirs and one of the best prepared ensembles for early music. On the initiative of the Josquin des Préz Chamber Choir and under the leadership of its conductor Ludwig Böhme, Josquin’s complete works including some 18 masses, 60 motets and 60 chansons were performed in a series of 36 world premiere concerts from 2004 to 2017. All concerts took place mainly in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.
The singers of the choir have performed over 500 concerts and have toured extensively throughout Western and Eastern Europe. The Josquin des Préz Chamber Choir is a welcome guest at renowned festivals such as MDR Musiksommer, Mosel Musikfestival, Kurt-Weill-Fest Dessau, Chor.com or Bachfest Leipzig. The Goethe-Institut chose him as cultural ambassador of Germany and invited him with this mission to Albania in 2006 and Argentina in 2012. The Choir in 2018 won the 1st prize at the 10th German Choral Competition in Freiburg. In the category of ‘Mixed Chamber Choirs’ the choir, under the direction of Ludwig Böhme, achieved a remarkable rating by prevailing in a high-level competition of the best choirs in Germany.
Today we make an Interview to Ludwig Böhme about his artistic and musical career, the choir and, of course, Josquin Desprez.
Maestro Böhme, when did you decide to pursue a career as a musician? And how did Ludwig Böhme become a choir director?
My parents are both musicians, I myself was a member of the choir of St Thomas Church in Leipzig. This can well be called a musical childhood! After graduating from high school, I did a year of community service caring for the elderly and had not yet decided how to continue my studies. During this year (and in total abstinence from music) I clearly understood that music is what I want to do all my life and I enrolled at the University of Leipzig. I started with Orchestral Conducting but after two semesters I switched to Choral Conducting, mainly because I wanted to learn more about singing and vocal music.
The Josquin des Préz Chamber Choir is one of the leading choirs in the city of Leipzig and is one of the most experienced ensembles in early music. Can you tell us something about the history behind the choir and its repertoire? The choir is named after one of the most famous French-Flemish composers and singers of the Renaissance. Why was this name chosen? Does this mean that only Josquin’s music is sung or are works by other composers also part of the choir’s repertoire?
The chamber choir was founded in 1987 when some students from Leipzig got together to try to perform a mass by Josquin. Their enthusiasm for this music meant that this event did not remain a one-off project, but led to the formation of a small ensemble that was dedicated above all to the music of Josquin and his times, and was eventually named after the great Flemish composer. One of the founders still sings with us today! I took over the direction of the choir in 2002, when I was still a student. At that time I had little experience of Josquin. Little by little, I have been learning more about it, renewed the choir and enriched the repertoire by introducing numerous pieces by Josquin as well as music from other periods. From 2004 to 2017, we gave the first ever performance of his complete works in Leipzig. I would say that the size of the choir, with 16 singers, is well suited to music from 1500 to 1750, which is also what all the members like best.
Can you tell us something about the singers? Are the choristers professionals or amateurs? How often do you rehearse and how do the rehearsals take place? Are there any special secrets to working with a chamber choir?
The Josquin des Préz Chamber Choir is a semi-professional choir. The singers are all musically and vocally trained and have a lot of choral experience, but they are not professionals in the sense of those who make their living from music. The age of the singers also varies. We have some former singers from the Leipzig St. Thomas Church Choir, students, music teachers, a linguist, an engineer and a bus driver. We rehearse once a week and give 10-15 concerts a year; this year was obviously not possible.
Due to the small number of members in a chamber choir, the rehearsal work takes place in a harmonious atmosphere and with a high artistic contribution from each individual singer: everyone has a personal responsibility because often a section may only have two or three singers. After a long day’s work, concentration and passion are required, and it is precisely this challenge that makes the choir so attractive: you don’t disappear into the anonymous crowd, everyone has creative possibilities.
Do you also conduct other choirs? What makes the Josquin des Préz Chamber Choir so special to you?
Yes, in addition to the Josquin des Préz Chamber Choir, I also conduct the Leipzig Synagogue Choir, a 35-member group dedicated exclusively to Jewish music, even though the singers are not Jewish. There are often joint projects with the Josquin des Préz Choir, for example comparative performances of Jewish and Christian psalms. In addition, in 1999 I co-founded the Calmus Ensemble, a professional vocal quintet, in which I still sing the baritone part and give about 50-60 concerts a year (also in Italy). The particularity of the ‘Josquin des Préz’ Chamber Choir is above all its sound, which results from the size of the choir: larger than a vocal ensemble but smaller and more personal than a choir. This variety is excellent for Renaissance vocal music because it is ‘light’ in sound and individual at the same time.
Is there a ‘German’ way of singing, i.e. some peculiarity in the interpretation and choral singing of early music? If so, which one?
Certainly, the German language plays an important role in this context: when German singers sing Italian music, Italians immediately feel that the pronunciation is ‘German’, even if we try so hard… The German language does not know the Italian or French legato. On the other hand, it becomes an advantage: the wonderful music of Schütz, Schein, Bach and so many other central German composers who were based on Luther and the Reformation, brought the German language into the churches. Here German performers can bring a special quality and liveliness to the text and the music. I don’t think we can generally speak of a ‘German way of singing’, but perhaps typical is frankness, clarity and therefore a certain clarity.
Now we are going through a difficult time for the whole world because of the coronavirus health emergency and choirs are particularly affected. Some are struggling to survive. How are you coping with this period and what are the prospects for choral life in Germany?
It is difficult to answer this question. At the moment we are not allowed to meet and rehearse, concerts are out of the question. Everything has stood still: expansion of the repertoire, musical work, shared experiences, stage, applause. The year 2020 is a disaster for choirs, and not only for us. Our entire professional culture is based on singing and choral music, ensembles, orchestras and lay and amateur associations which are the basis for concert productions, opera houses, sacred music and festivals. Here we urgently need solutions on how culture (amateur associations, high culture and all forms of cultural activities) can take place because they are relevant to our society. But it must not become a health risk. Of course, it is a catastrophe that must be prevented; it has already happened that more than half of the singers were infected with covid-19 during choir rehearsals! I don’t have a solution for this, but I must and will raise my voice to sing together as much as possible!
Is there a concert, appearance or event that has particularly stuck with you?
In 2017 we completed the world’s first ever performance of Josquin Desprez’s opera omnia with a final concert in St Thomas Church in Leipzig. In 13 years, the composer’s entire oeuvre was performed. The last piece was his magnificent 24-voice Canon Qui Habitat. Those last six minutes, the finish line so to speak, were extremely emotional for me: as if in a flash some of the countless moments of the concert appeared in my mind. I could physically feel that I was taking a great project to the final chord. At the end, there was a long, suspended silence. Then, immediately afterwards, jubilant applause. It was moving! By the way, we recorded a video of this Canon as our choir’s first project after the lockdown in spring 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgHwwuPWzPw
Have you already planned events and concerts for 2021 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of the great composer Josquin Desprez?
Yes, absolutely. We want to celebrate ‘Josquin’s 500th birthday’ in a fitting way in Leipzig and are currently planning a very exciting Weekend (25-28 November 2021), as well as a concert on exactly the 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death on 27 August 2021. We will present Josquin’s masterpieces but also put them in the context of other eras; a world premiere is also planned. We will deal with secular and sacred themes, we will perform festive and chamber music in several concerts. In addition, we are collaborating with the University of Leipzig to offer seminars, lectures and discussions, we will deal with ancient notations and improvise late into the night… Not only lovers of early music can be curious!
More detailed information will be available from February 2021 on www.josquindesprez.de
Anna Kaira completed her studies at the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music in Moscow (Russia) and at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Kiev (Ukraine). She pursued her musical studies further at the University of Bayreuth (Germany), where she undertook a PhD in musicology on “Choirs in Richard Wagner’s Early Works”, achieving the academic title of “Doctor of Philosophy” (PhD) on the 25th of February 2002. She has taught at various universities in Germany, Italy and Croatia. Over 30 years of concert work she has performed in more than 200 concerts in Italy and abroad (Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary) as choirmaster of various choral ensembles. She has participated as choirmaster in 15 international choral festivals and competitions, receiving prestigious awards. She holds masterclasses in choral conducting in Switzerland and Austria. In Trieste she directs the main choir and the children’s choir at the Serbian-Orthodox church in San Spiridione; teaches singing at the “Ars Nova Music Academy” and works as project manager for international projects at the academy; she is a member of the judging panel for the “Ars Nova International Music Competition – Trieste”; president of the “Associazione Amici Gioventù Musicale – Trieste ODV”; member of the editorial committee of the magazine “DIRIGO” and national board member of the “Associazione Nazionale Direttori di Coro Italiani” (Italian Choirmasters Association). She has numerous publications in the field of musicology and sacred music. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org